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What Does Work-Life Balance Mean in 2016?

Originally published by Lindsey Pollak June 21, 2016

Work-life balance (a.k.a. work-life integration, work-life fit, work-life blend) has been a hot workplace topic for, oh, the past three decades or so. But in today’s constantly connected, mobile-enabled, global, 24/7/365 world, the concept seems more complicated and debated than ever. Here’s why.

“Work” Doesn’t End at 5 … and “Life” Doesn’t Begin at 5

Expecting to turn off your phone at 5 p.m. is an antiquated view of work. Now, everyone — and millennials in particular — realize it’s not realistic in most professional careers to expect work will be complete at 5 p.m. (Or 6 p.m. … or 7 p.m. …)

I often hear from professionals — millennials in particular — that they don’t turn off any part of themselves, ever. That means they will spend a few minutes during the work day shopping online or reserving a bike for SoulCycle, but they’re also not the least bit bothered by their boss calling them at 8 p.m. or having to answer some emails on a Sunday morning. In fact, in one survey, more than 80 percent of people said they check their work email on weekends and 55 percent do so after 11 p.m. (I probably would be part of that 55 percent if I could ever stay up that late…)

This overlap of work and personal life has only become possible in the past 15 years or so. When I first started my career, if I wanted to work on the weekend, I had to trudge into the office to have access to my documents. One attorney recently told me she remembers weekends early in her career of faxing several-hundred-page contracts and having to watch each page to make sure it didn’t get stuck in the fax machine. Now? She attaches a PDF from her phone wherever she happens to be.

Always On = No Down Time = Stress!

But if today’s reality is always being “on” personally and professionally, it also means we’re never off. And that’s not always healthy. Constant access to email is associated with higher levels of stress, according to one report from the London-based Future Work Centre. In fact, researchers identified  checking emails early in the morning and late at night as one of the most stressful habits. Another study conducted by the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that workers who were expected to be available outside of work displayed an elevated stress response.

Research shows that constant access to email is associated with higher levels of stress. Click To Tweet

What Companies Can Do

Despite the lip service offered to work-life balance from many employers today, workers aren’t always seeing it: Just half say their employer values work-life balance, and a little less than half say their employer offers programs and policies that allow for flexibility, according to a survey from the American Psychological Association.

Your organization’s policies have to be based on your culture and business realities – a call center or retail establishment, for example, can’t allow employees to choose their own hours – but many companies are moving in the right direction to allow flexibility where they can. Here are some steps you can take:

  • Discourage weekend work. JP Morgan is just the latest of many banks to create a policy to eliminate or limit work on the weekends. Checking email now and then is fine and expected, but avoid making major assignments that have to be completed by Monday morning.
  • Remember that work-life balance is not just for parents. Many millennials tell me they have had managers or colleagues who would cut out early to attend a school play or child’s doctor’s appointment, while leaving non-parents in the office. Remember that people without kids have just as many places they want to be.
  • Don’t limit flexibility by seniority. In the past, workers had to earn flexible hours, but now it’s expected even by entry-level workers. I regularly hear from college freshmen who are looking for careers that will offer that balance from Day One. Now that we can work from anywhere, is it really a “perk” to be able to work from home on occasion?

What Employees Can Do

Work-life flexibility is a two-way street, and employees have a part to play along with their employers. The short advice: Think ahead and be a team player.

Most companies will probably be pretty understanding if you provide advance notice of when you’d like time off; for example, if your parents are going to be in town or you’re headed to a destination wedding.

Choose your times judiciously if you have some flexibility for a vacation. Don’t bail the last week of the month if that’s particularly busy, or in early April if your work is tax-related.

Work-life balance is a complicated issue with a lot of factors at play: family commitments, personal health and well-being, and business goals. In my opinion, we should all have the flexibility to be the best man in our friend’s wedding or hit the gym when we need to or rest when we are sick. As one young professional said to me recently: “I don’t like the term ‘work-life balance.’ Isn’t it all just life?”

What is your organization doing to promote work-life integration? How do you yourself manage? Share your best practices or challenges in the comments below!


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